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In Tel Aviv, a Mechitzah Sparks a Battle Over the Role of Religion in the Public Square

Orthodox women say they want a large gathering to feature separate seating. Liberal feminists say that’s unacceptable.

Liel Leibovitz
June 27, 2018
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis in Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin, 2017.JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis in Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin, 2017.JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, a religious group in Israel decided to hold a rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv’s central hub. Invitations were sent, posters were printed, and speakers booked. Then, however, a few of the city’s enlightened residents noticed one troubling detail: This being a religious event, it would feature a mechitzah creating separate sections for men and for women.

This was more than Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, could take. In a fiery video message posted online, the mayor informed his Orthodox constituents that their beliefs were unacceptable. “Our city,” thundered Huldai, “where the Declaration of Independence was read out loud, was always a pioneer of protecting human rights, equality in general, and gender equality in particular. This decision is aligned with the values of the State of Israel, always striving for equal rights and working to put an end to the grave phenomenon of pushing women out of the public space.” The event’s organizers argued that they had no intention of doing anything but putting together an event in which Orthodox Jews could partake according to their beliefs and traditions. Just as the men and the women prayed separately in shul and celebrated separately at simchas, they would not be able to attend the event unless it allowed them to observe their custom. The mayor refused to budge, and the organizers appealed to the court.

Backed by a battery of civil-rights organizations, the city repeated the mayor’s argument, claiming that a mechitzah was inherently disrespectful and degrading to women. The courthouse, according to reports in the Israeli press, was packed with Orthodox women who came to support the event’s organizers and confirm that without the mechitzah, they would not be able to attend an event to which they were otherwise looking forward. Officials from the Women’s Lobby, a large feminist nonprofit, were unmoved and continued to insist that any attempt at separating the genders was inherently misogynistic, discriminatory, and unlawful.

The court did not agree, especially after the organizers guaranteed that the mechitzah would only run down some of the event’s space, leaving the rest of the square free for men and women who’d like to stand together to do just that. Vindicated by the court’s ruling, the organizers held the event on Monday. But the self-styled champions of civil and women’s rights remained adamant in their fury. On Facebook, Tamar Zandberg, the leader of Meretz, Israel’s most prominent progressive party, assured her supporters that “the fight is far from over.” It’s inconceivable, Zandberg wrote, that an event in Tel Aviv “feature separate seating for men and women, like they do in benighted countries. The attempt to make Tel Aviv, liberalism’s stronghold, benighted as well will not go over quietly.”

It hardly takes a political philosopher to realize that the position Zandberg, Huldai, and many others on the Israeli left are advocating is anything but liberal. In keeping with liberalism’s actual values, the event’s organizers offered a space where anyone, religious or otherwise, could freely pursue his or her beliefs. In return, Zandberg et al. had no better argument but to tell Orthodox women that their choice to live according to the dictates of their faith was benighted. When your definition of feminism is telling other women that they only have the right to choose as long as they make the kind of choices you like, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself politically marginalized, as the left in Israel had become in the last decade.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time Israel’s guardians of progressivism chose to disenfranchise religious women rather than let them practice Judaism. In 2016, Orthodox women about to graduate from Hebrew University’s law school asked that their commencement feature a small mechitzah, enabling them to participate in the ceremony and enjoy the moment for which they’ve worked so hard. The university refused, telling the women that accommodating their request would be very disrespectful to women. It would be comical if it didn’t cause real harm to real people. Let’s hope that the court ruling in Tel Aviv will dissuade future fanatics from trying to curb the religious liberties of fellow Jews.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.